Today's restaurant opening brings end to expansion era at The Mall

Officials have high hopes for entertainment plaza

November 05, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

The kitchen is moving like a machine, with cooks calling out names of dishes to each other, shaking paprika over pasta and making sure garnishes sprout gracefully from the dishes. Outside, the wait staff is learning how to display a bottle of wine to customers and gently pull out the cork, and bartenders pore over manuals on which glasses to use for screwdrivers and fuzzy navels.

The 200-person staff at the new Champps Americana restaurant spent all last week in classes, reading manuals and practicing for 4 p.m. today - when the new restaurant opens and serves its first meal.

"We'll see how they do [at] game time," said Robert Glen, the restaurant's general manager.

The latest addition to The Mall in Columbia marks the end of a three-year expansion project that has brought in a new round of retailers and added a splash of entertainment and night life to the property and the Town Center community.

Rouse Co. executives hope their new entertainment area - a collection of free-standing restaurants clustered on the west side of the shopping center between Nordstrom and Sears - will be a draw to residents in an area lacking restaurants.

"The focus is one of entertainment and outdoor ambiance," said Karen Geary, vice president and general manager of The Mall.

"We felt that entertainment was missing," Geary said. "We were hearing from the community that we needed more eating. This is a community that likes to go out on Friday and Saturday nights."

That's good news to Glen.

The 334-seat Champps restaurant serves American cuisine with a healthy dose of sports.

Television screens dot every wall, and house microphones are good for karaoke and punchy comments made by an in-house disc jockey.

But Glen knows the restaurant is throwing open its doors at a time when consumer spending is at an eight-year low. Howard County's tourism industry - of which restaurants are a part - has suffered.

Nevertheless, Glen remains positive about the timing.

"It's Christmas, we're in a mall," Glen said. "I think people are starting to reach back into their pockets."

The Mall's expansion and renovation project began in 1999 with the opening of the Nordstrom department store and an accompanying wing of outlets.

The management redesigned and consolidated its two food courts into one and brought in new retailers such as J. Crew, which opened in September.

The entertainment area, an outdoor plaza, began to take shape this spring, with the opening of a Starbucks coffeehouse in April.

One month later, L.L. Bean opened a 30,000- square-foot store - its third retail outlet in the country - followed by P.F. Chang's Asian Bistro and Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill.

With Champps Americana, the center has reached 1.3 million square feet, with the new stores accounting for more than 100,000 square feet. And there's room to expand.

Rouse holds a 25,000- square-foot parcel next to L.L. Bean, on which it had once hoped to put a movie theater. Another 38,000 square feet next to Champps is undeveloped, Geary said.

"We're looking at everything from a restaurant and entertainment to traditional retailers," she said. "Our customers keep us with a list of what they'd like to see."

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